Ben Masters, author of the acclaimed 2012 novel Noughties, was named a ‘Face of the Future’ by Vogue magazine in that very same year. Helen Simpson is a writer of short stories with five collections and numerous awards to her name, including the 1991 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award.
These two champions of youthful writing collided in Manchester at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation. Here Helen performed a reading of Diary of an Interesting Year from her collection In-Flight Entertainment, before sitting down to chat with Ben about the short story, the writing life, and a variety of other subjects.
Before the collision, however, two students of Manchester Metropolitan University’s (MMU) Creative Writing MA took to the stage and performed readings of their own. These were excerpts from larger, in-progress novels.
Sarah Morris gave us a story from the perspective of a neurotic woman called Sue, whose curious mental ticks and occasional bursts of ruthlessness struck a chord with myself and, I’m sure, anyone else in the crowd who has ever made a pretension toward ‘rational’ or legalistic behaviour in their everyday life. As in real life, the voice of Sue was funniest when her own human flaws poked through the perfect, logical image of herself that she wished to project.
Paul Forrester-O’Neill followed on from Sarah. His writing, as Ben pointed out in a quick introduction, was a stylistic attempt to channel the voices of the American literary tradition. After a comparison to Cormac McCarhty, Tom Wolfe, etc. Ben offered Paul and the crowd a swift apology, just in case he had set the bar slightly too high. Regardless, Paul was indeed a rich stylist. In the first few paragraphs, I picked out such meaty phrases as ‘watermelon flesh’, and ‘texture of beeswax’. Paul’s writing showed a great attention to detail – in the setting and in the landscape – and placed little emphasis on dialogue. Simple human actions spoke for themselves.
Diary of an Interesting Year began with these same simple human actions. Helen Simpson’s story felt ordinarily British at first – complaints about the weather, marital bickering, neighbourhood gossip – but a more sinister picture began to emerge. First, rat infestation, food shortages and deaths. Then exodus, extinction, starvation, rape and murder. Simpson’s snapshot of the south of England in 2040 envisioned rural and urban struggle in a natural world smashed by climate change and a human world irreparably ruined by civic collapse. I decided to read it today, she told the crowd, because I heard some bad news about the weather on television.
Ben and Helen’s conversational coming together served to lighten the mood a little. Ben confessed that he had studied beforehand, and read a published series of Helen’s ‘questions to herself’ as a guide for ‘how not to interview you’. These made up questions not-so-implicitly belittled the short story, the writing life, and Helen’s ability as a writer. Funnily enough, these were the exact subjects that Ben and Helen then took up in their conversation, but on politer terms.
Helen told us that she likes the completeness of the short story, adding that to her, the reading experience is something that should ideally be completed “in one sitting.” As to writing itself, she prefers the process of the short story because it involves “wastefulness, and a kind of endless circling around certain themes.” She felt that the novel, by contrast, must always be for practical and temporal reasons, a more straightforward affair, in the sense of “move forward and get on with it.”
Helen also had some advice for aspiring writers. Taking a question from the floor, she advised that there is no set method for collating a series of short stories, and though this approach can be interesting, one must always write taking the approach that suits one best. In short, be yourself!
But as well as ‘be thyself’, one must also ‘know thyself’. Helen insisted that to be successful and happy in your writing you must accept there are certain places where you can write and certain places where you cannot. Helen suggested a quiet desk, or maybe a café. But not any old café. Ideally you should shoot for somewhere on the edge of Paris – preferably run down, not too hip – and set up shop there, undistracted by the ‘foreign babble’. This approach, the writer should hasten to add, won’t work if you are a French speaker.
On the way out I chatted to Ben Masters about his MA students. Ben lectures in the Manchester Writing School and teaches on the School’s Creative Writing MA, in which students working in prose are asked to produce an entire novel and engage in the publishing process.
“We get students from all sorts of age-ranges,” Ben told me, “From older writers like Sarah and Paul to younger writers who have just finished their undergraduate degrees.”
I enquired whether the age differences produce different writing styles.
“No, not really. You see an incredible range of styles.”
If only I had known at the time, but a quick Google of Noughties reveals that Ben’s very own first novel fits this description quite neatly.
Angus is an aspiring writer, hobbyist photographer, and undergraduate student of English and Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. He is originally from Dundee, Scotland and has been living in Manchester, England since the summer of 2011. You can find all of his online hiding places here.